New Horizons: Discovering Thailand

We are delighted to give you more good news on this White Cane Day! ETI is in the process of exploring the possibilities of expansion to Asia. To this end, Sara Minkara, our founder, and I, Ahsen Utku, traveled to Thailand in early October to discover the field. Needless to say, Thailand is an amazing country. It is now the rainy season, but still very hot (compared to Boston)! The tuk-tuk drivers, who are always way above the speed limit, made us re-define everything we knew about the culture of public transportation. 

People packed at the back of a "tuk-tuk" in traffic. Tuk-tuk is an essential part of the daily life in Bangkok.

People packed at the back of a "tuk-tuk" in traffic. Tuk-tuk is an essential part of the daily life in Bangkok.

We are also deeply thankful to have the best hosts ever: Hartanto, Aom, Ouan, Ot, Som, Not, and others. Their hospitality was at its peak, and now the idea that having Thai brothers and sisters at the other end of the world makes us very happy. 

Sara, Ahsen, our Thai hosts and two rows of Thai girl students who greeted us at the Wat Arun Temple.

Sara, Ahsen, our Thai hosts and two rows of Thai girl students who greeted us at the Wat Arun Temple.

However, as a part of our field research, we witnessed another sheer reality of Thailand, which is universally shared by every society: the blind people of Thailand. While we were busy with building strong relationships with the main players in Thailand with regard to blind and disability rights, we were also amazed by the fact that once given the chance, blind kids could achieve the highest goals, just like any other person with or without disabilities.  

Sara speaking with a blind literature teacher in the classroom 

Sara speaking with a blind literature teacher in the classroom 

Through our visit, we met the main players on the ground: educational institutions and schools serving the blind youth, foundations, human rights organizations, youth groups, blind professionals and activists. Meeting so many passionate and hardworking people and organizations dedicated to the empowerment of blind youth filled us with hope. We will soon have more exciting news of upcoming projects, so stay tuned!

Mr. Torpong Selanon, the President of Thailand Association of the Blind, presenting gifts to Sara. 

Mr. Torpong Selanon, the President of Thailand Association of the Blind, presenting gifts to Sara. 

Mr. Montian Buntan, former President of TAB, showing us aroung in the TAB building and introducing the TAB workers.

Mr. Montian Buntan, former President of TAB, showing us aroung in the TAB building and introducing the TAB workers.

Sara and Hartanto having a conversation with the officials of The Bangkok School for the Blind

Sara and Hartanto having a conversation with the officials of The Bangkok School for the Blind

Sara, Ahsen and the Amnesty International Thailand team in Bangkok.

Sara, Ahsen and the Amnesty International Thailand team in Bangkok.

Sara and the Mercy Center team in Bangkok. 

Sara and the Mercy Center team in Bangkok. 

ETI Update

                  The end of the summer brings exciting news from the ETI team: in addition to preparations for the January camps in Lebanon and Nicaragua, we have been busy attending conferences, forging relationships with local and international partners and winning fellowships and prizes in film festivals!

                  Most recently, ETI has been working on re-opening the programs in Lebanon, which has been closed for several years due to the unstable political situation. Now, due to the influx of Syrian refugees, ETI has decided to re-open the camp to serve an even wider audience. In order to do this, ETI has spent the month of July re-establishing partnerships with local NGOs as well as forging new partnerships with both government and non-government local actors- including the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Al-Hariri Foundation, the Municipality of Tripoli as well as the American University in Beirut and Lebanese University. We hope to hire a country director by December 2015 and run both Camp Rafiqi and the Social Project program next summer.

                  While ETI forged the path for re-opening the Lebanon programs, we also spent July strengthening ties and developing a local team in Nicaragua.  Most notably the ETI team has fostered a fruitful relationship with David Lopez, the President of the Organización de Ciegos Nicaraguesnces de Marisela Toledo, a national organization of blind people. David has been an avid supporter of ETI’s work in Nicaragua and was enthusiastic about ETI’s desire to form an advisory committee made up of Nicaraguans. ETI has also developed ties with the Biblioteca Nacional de Luis Braille, a library for the blind in Managua. Previously, the library has helped us hold parent events and pilot programs. This July, the staff of the library helped us plan and host a seminar for parents of blind children. As a bonus, ETI was invited to attend a braille instructor certification program hosted by the Instituto Nacional de Technología (National Institute of Technology). 

Beyond establishing camps globally, five ETI team members attended, for the first time, the UN Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At the conference, ETI benefited from establishing connections with other NGOs working internationally and locally. The ETI team hopes to attend the conference every year and to continue building partnerships with similar minded organizations from across the world.

Below is a picture of the United Nations Conference of State Parties that ETI attended:

Finally, ETI was fortunate enough to attend the 75th Anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Convention in July. Two of our members were able to attend different workshops and meetings discussing various national issues for the blind and visually impaired community. During this convention, ETI was also a part of the breaking of the Guinness World Record for the largest umbrella mosaic. Below is an image of that world record:

Attending conferences and establishing camps globally would not be possible without the support of many private and public sponsors. We are especially to the Dubin family for their continued support of ETI. In addition, we have been awarded fellowships from Echoing Green, the Newman Foundation as well as the Halcyon Incubator Fellowship, which will allow us to expand our presence in the D.C. area and to benefit from the vibrant NGO community there. With these new fellowships and funding, ETI has begun hiring staff as well as begun brainstorming for expansion.

We are also excited to announce that ETI has been awarded the 1st prize in the Girls Impact Film Festival. This award is given to "videos that raise awareness about critical issues... around the world or [those that] propose solutions to critical challenges faced by women." Gloria Hong has been hard at work for over a year developing a short film detailing the history of ETI and Sara’s experience starting it. She, Sara, and Professor Joanna Lipper are pictured below:

Dining in the Dark: Empathize from Plates to Policies

Written By Sylvia Leung 

Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) hosting a dining in the dark event with a room full of Harvard Kennedy School of Government students (April 10, 2014).
Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) hosting a dining in the dark event with a room full of Harvard Kennedy School of Government students (April 10, 2014).

“As an aspiring policy maker, I feel that everyone should go through dining in the dark…” said Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Harvard Business School student Amandla Ooko-Ombaka. Amandla was one of the 60+ HKS students and friends who were blind-folded while eating a three-course meal at the April 2014 HKS Dining in the Dark event. Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) and I planned this event to increase awareness and empathy for the blind and disabled.

I totally agree with Amandla. Everyone should experience dining in the dark because there’s no better way to empathize the blind than to experience being blind yourself. While attendees learned how to dine blind-folded, they grew hungry to better understand and help the blind and disabled. Throughout the three and a half hour event, our conversations progressed from plates of food, processes of life and policies of change.

Plates of Food

By eating blind-folded, attendees tapped into their under-utilized senses. Amandla commented, “I am grateful for the experience of really focusing on the sensation of eating with friends - the sound of their voices, their spatial orientation, the smell of our food, the need to be purposeful with each movement of my cutlery.” As a non-blind folded emcee of the event, I witnessed people tenderly touching their table settings to navigate their surroundings, slowly savoring their food to appreciate the flavors, and listening carefully to recognize their tablemates’ voices. I heard comments of both struggles and accomplishments. Initially, attendees appeared frustrated or anxious to fail at dining properly. However, in the end, I heard attendees cheer when they were able to accurately guess what they were eating and neatly finish their food.

Processes of Life

The blind-folded dining experience opened up a whole new conversation about the processes of life. I remember the conversation shifting when one attendee asked Sara about her personal experience as a blind person.  While Sara shared her life stories and a unique can-do attitude, I felt the audience grew more energetic, curious and compassionate. There were more thoughtful and heartfelt questions, including questions about how blind cross the street, when is it okay to offer help to a blind person and the dating experience for the blind.

Policies of Change

As the event was coming to a close, attendees started asking more action-oriented and problem-solving questions. Sara responded by urging everyone to accommodate the blind and disabled in whatever work they do. In a room full of future policymakers, I think attendees walked away with the key point that blind and disabled persons should be considered in all decision-making. Decision-making could be in the government at the local, state or national level. Decision-making could be in the private for-profit or non-profit sector. Whatever the case may be, blind and disabled persons should be considered anywhere where policies and decisions are made. I’ve learned from Sara and this event that such policy considerations should go beyond giving charity to the disabled. Instead, such policy considerations should enable the disabled to self-sustain and contribute to society.

From plates to policies, I took away so many lessons and memories from this Dining in the Dark experience. I hope everyone (including you the reader!) will attend or even host your own Dining in the Dark event.

Special thanks to the HKS Center for Public Leadership for sponsoring the Dining in the Dark event. 

Greg and the Library

¡Hola amigos! Hello again from Nicaragua. I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself and share with you about one of our first visits on this trip to Nicaragua, which has turned out to be more valuable than we could have guessed at the time. First a little background about me: My name is Greg Aikens and I am currently serving as the Program Director for ETI. I work as a teacher of students who are blind and visually impaired for Cobb County School District in metro Atlanta and have been teaching at Russell Elementary for the past 2 years. Go Roadrunners! I have done some traveling abroad and had encountered the needs of people, particularly children, with disabilities in developing nations and for several years my goal has been to get involved in international development in this area. I was thrilled to learn about ETI last summer and discover our mission to empower youth with disabilities around the world. I joined the ETI team in September and was delighted to become part of the team traveling to Nicaragua this summer.

Which brings me back to my story… Hannah wrote about our first attempt at finding the library for the blind in Managua. We were delighted to connect with the rehabilitation center next to where the library used to be, but we were pretty disappointed to find that no one at the rehabilitation center could tell us where it had moved. We mentioned this in passing to Manuel, a veritable Nicaraguan jack of all trades who also owns the guest house where we are staying, and like magic, the next morning he produced the phone number and an accurate address for the new location of the library.

Coming up with the address itself is an impressive feat, but in Nicaragua, that is only half of solving the puzzle. Manuel was also able to give us accurate directions to the address. In general, Nicaraguan addresses don’t work like addresses in the United states. Very few homes and buildings have street numbers, and while most of the streets probably have names, no one knows them or uses them for navigation. Instead, Nicaraguan addresses direct people to a general area of town and then to a landmark. From there, directions are given in the number of blocks in a certain direction. Sometimes these directions are the standard compass directions we are accustomed to, north, south, east, west, but often east and west are replaced with ariba and de bajo (the spanish words for up and down). To spice things up, some directionals include things like “toward the lake.” Occasionally the landmark will be something that no longer exists, e.g. “where the large planters used to be” or “where the movie theater was.” So navigation in Nicaragua requires a general knowledge of local geography, a great sense of direction, and sometimes knowledge of recent or not so recent history. As strange and disjointed as this system seems to my North American sensibilities, the system works. Thus far, we have been able to find every location we have needed with minimal searching, mostly thanks to the expert advice provided by Manuel.

The address for the braille library includes a large tree next to a small alley, which turned out to be a very accurate description. Our team arrived in the early afternoon and was greeted by Ynin, the coordinator for the library for the blind. Our intention was to request a meeting with the director of the library, but after sharing a little about ETI’s mission and our goal to have a seminar for parents of children who are blind and visually impaired while we are in Nicaragua, Ynin offered to help us contact parents and children to invite them and even offered us the use of the library space for the seminar. Our team was blown away by her hospitality and willingness to help. In planning for this trip, we knew that securing a location for a parent seminar would be one of the most important and potentially most challenging tasks to complete, and on basically our second day of work in Nicaragua, we had not only secured a space, but found someone who was willing to invite parents and children on our behalf to attend the seminar. This was a major step forward that made the rest of our work in Nicaragua far easier.





Bienvenidos From Nicaragua

Hola from sunny (and humid) Nicaragua! The ETI team has now been on the ground for 10 days, staying in Managua, the capital city. Let’s introduce you to the members of the 2014 Nicaragua ETI Team: IMG_8721 (Left to right) Shontelle Brathwaite, Hannah Huhr, Sean Whalen, Greg Aikens, David Lim

We’ve had a whirlwind of adventures already, which we look forward to sharing with you in the next several posts. This includes meeting with a couple of local organizations working with the blind population, visiting schools, and setting ourselves up for a parent workshop! While we’ve been working hard, we’ve also had opportunities to check out some cool cities and get to know the culture here a little better. So be sure to stay tuned because we’ve got some goodies and treats for you! Plus, you’ll get to meet each of us a little bit more ;)

We are so excited to be here and have been having a blast getting to meet the very helpful and friendly Nicaraguans! Some of us (ahem, maybe all of us) are also brushing up on our español, which is an added bonus.

Hasta pronto!